You know I kinda hurt for Nicholas of Myra. I believe if as a result of some sci-fi realization of time travel, I was given the opportunity to live during the lifetime of Nicholas I would be impressed by his faithful and passionate walk with the Lord. Of course the history of his lifetime could be suspect as apparently nothing was recorded until 300 to 500 years after his death in 343AD.
The reason I hurt for Nicholas is because of what the people made of him after his death … and for the sake of this post I am not talking about the whole Santa Claus thing. Quite frankly … the whole Santa Claus thing is a major, major demotion from the god-like status people had elevated the sleeping saint to in the millennium prior to the reformation.
And his postmortem persona was incredibly legendary … in fact, the reason Nicholas is no longer considered a major saint and his festival day is now optional is because the Catholic Church came to the conclusion that his sainthood was based more on legend than historical record.
Much of what I will share here come from two sources … sources I might add who are both big supporters and champions of Saint Nicholas. The first source is a book written by William Bennett titled The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas. The second source is a website page: www.stnicholascenter.org – both sources offer a wealth of information – fact, fiction, mythical and legendary. (And a lil bit of info from Wikipedia finds its way into the post as well) How one chooses to interpret what is offered in these sources is up to the individual.
Bishop Nicholas of Myra died approximately December 6, 343AD. That date each year is now considered the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas and has been for most of the nearly 1700 years since. (Contrary to some fairly new Christmas ornaments, Nicholas was not present at the Nativity worshiping the baby Jesus in the manger).
Nicholas was very popular with the people and as a result he was long considered Saint Nicholas by the people before the Roman Catholic Church began regular canonization procedures in the 10th century.
In the four to five centuries immediately following his death, the sleeping Nicholas performed so many phenomenal miracles that he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Chapels, churches and basilicas were built bearing his name. Miracle plays, hymns and prayers celebrated Saint Nicholas.
As men set out to sea, they would pray that Saint Nicholas would guide the rudder. A practice existed that as ships set sail from port, they would cast three loaves of bread upon the water in the name of Saint Nicholas … seeking his blessing. Many a tale was told where captains and sailors in the midst of stormy peril at sea would claim to have been rescued by Nicholas … even one ship ended up at its port of destination despite the fact their rudder and sails had been destroyed at sea in the midst of a storm … and Nicholas was given credit.
His fame as a saint grew around the Mediterranean, all over Europe and into Asia. In fact as Columbus and Spanish explorers came to the New World, many of their discoveries were named in honor of Saint Nicholas (One of the early settlements where Jacksonville, FL currently stands was named St. Nicholas Ferry).
Meanwhile the sleeping Saint’s bones were considered ‘relics’ in the tomb where he lay in the church in Myra. And a mysterious thing began to happen. A water or oil unexplainably was appearing in his tomb and surrounding his bones. This water or oil came to be known as ‘the manna of St. Nicholas’ and was said to have mysterious powers of healing and restoration for body and soul. People made pilgrimage trips to Myra to pay homage to Nicholas and to obtain vials of ‘the manna of Nicholas’.
When Christians lost control of Myra, two other cities set out to rescue his bones … his relics … and bring them back to their cities. The citizens in Bari captured the sleeping Saint’s remains and despite the efforts of the people of Myra, escaped returning to Bari victorious with the relics of Nicholas. A new crypt and tomb was built in the Basilica San Nicola di Bari and those on pilgrimage to see his relics now had a new destination. And legend has it hat his bones continued to generate the manna.
This came from a webpage at the St. Nicholas Center site:
“It is also fully proven that the pilgrims coming to Bari, are attracted to the tomb of the Saint in view of the fact that the “manna” is famous because of the miracles St. Nicholas accomplishes through it.
The devotees from time immemorial have always recoursed to the Protector Saint to ask for health in mind and body, by using the “manna”. The liquid distributed to the faithful is holy water in which the “pure santa manna” was mixed. This liquid, conserved in ampules, are taken in as a drink or sprinkled in the part of the body that is suffering from an illness.”
As the sleeping Saint was indeed a people favorite, the legend of Nicholas grew to such epic proportions that it bears a far greater resemblance to the stories of the gods of Greek and Roman mythology than it does to that of a Christian saint. As I was wrestling with how to describe what I was hearing on the audio book, I encountered this perfect recap on Wikipedia.
‘In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as ‘The Lord of the Sea’, often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon.’
The fame of Saint Nicholas reached what would one day become Russia. And he was as popular with the people there as the rest of the world. But I find this ancient Russian proverb especially insightful and alarming, ‘At least if something happens to God, we still have Saint Nicholas.’
Men and children taken prisoner and removed from their homes would pray to Saint Nicholas for their release from captivity and a safe return to home. Once again legend has it that one moment they would find themselves in chains in prison and captivity and the next moment, in a Philipesque kind of way, would suddenly find themselves safely at home with their chains and clothes of captivity still in tack. And there are multiple tales of such miracles.
Then there are bizarre accounts of students and children being killed and hacked up and put into meat barrels … only to be rescued and made whole again by Saint Nicholas.
A patron saint is a saint who is considered to be a defender of some group or nation. The people claimed Saint Nicholas to be a patron saint of nations, cities, merchants, pawnbrokers, seafarers, children, etc.
There are fables told of Nicholas and other sleeping saints on high talking about their feats in rescuing people and watching guard over the world that sound more like the gatherings of Roman and Greek gods on mountaintops than saints in heaven.
In the millennium following his death, for all intents and purposes the people deified Nicholas into their own god. This was in no part due to any efforts of Nicholas. And while he led an extremely interesting life, or so we are led to believe, it paled in comparison to the myths and legends created by the people after his death.
But then the reformation began. Protestants were not quite as enamored with the whole Saint thing as their Catholic brethren were … especially the relics.
Then there was the Age of Reason and advances in science and suddenly those myths and legend did not seem quite so real … and Nicholas’ star began to fade. But as we all know it was never extinguished. As the years passed, his new claim to fame became one as the patron saint of children and gift-giving.
Ironic, isn’t it? In the 16th century the people began to see the fallacy in the Saint Nicholas fables due to the reformation, the Age of Reason, and advances in science. Yet here we are a scant 500 years later, considering ourselves far more intelligent that any people before us … yet once again involved in deifying Nicholas … this time in the seasonal god Santa Claus.
Our intelligence will deny that we would be so ignorant as to deify Saint Nicholas into the god Santa Claus along with all his many associated idols.
Unfortunately (or fortunately based on your viewpoint), actions speak louder than both words and thoughts.
I doubt the adherents of Santa Claus have shared these details regarding Saint Nicholas … no, probably not.
More background info for your consideration …